contributor perspectives

Tibetan Succession Drama

Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
7 MINS READJan 2, 2013 | 10:00 GMT
Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan

By Robert D. Kaplan and Rodger Baker

Besides all the worries that Chinese leaders have about their economy, as well as the worries they have about the stability of the Communist Party at a time of rapid change, there is China's geographical periphery for them to be concerned about. This is no small matter. China is big in the sense that its population, commercial enterprises, resource acquisitions and economy in general are creating zones of influence in parts of the Russian Far East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. But China is small and potentially fragile in the sense that within its legal borders exist minority populations of Tibetans in the southwest, Uighur Turks in the west and ethnic Mongolians in the north, in addition to smaller, non-Chinese groups. Political liberalization in the ethnic-Han cradle of central and eastern China — a possibility in years to come — carries the potential of igniting further unrest in the minority areas.

No minority area of China is as fraught with as much consequence as Tibet. The Tibetan plateau and its environs constitute roughly one quarter of the Chinese landmass, in addition to being the source of fresh water for much of China, India and Bangladesh. Tibet is the land-bound hinge on which the tense geopolitical relationship between China and India rests. Tibet is also unique because the struggle of its people against Chinese domination centers on a charismatic global personality, the Dalai Lama, whose face and voice are known not only to students of world affairs but also to many Hollywood stars.

The Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan spiritual community. Beneath him is a layer of rinpoches: other reincarnated lamas, teachers and scholars, whose very numbers enhance the Dalai Lama's power. But this particular Dalai Lama, nearly 80 years old, is unique in other ways that bear upon the future of Tibet and how it will affect Chinese-Indian relations.

This Dalai Lama was born and raised in Tibet and escaped into exile in 1959 in the midst of a three-year uprising against Beijing's rule. He settled in the Indian town of Dharamsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh near Kashmir, close to Tibet. The Chinese finally put down the Tibetan uprising in 1962, the same year they defeated India in a limited border war. The Dalai Lama, who speaks English, went on for the next half-century to use his perch in Dharamsala to continually voice his opposition to China's total domination over Tibet. Dharamsala has been a perfect location for the Dalai Lama: It is proximate to Tibet, yet it is inside a democratic country friendly to the Tibetan cause where the Dalai Lama can speak his mind to the international media.

In the course of being a public figure over the decades, the Dalai Lama has become the political symbol as well as the spiritual symbol of a free Tibet. This is a fact so obvious it tends to get overlooked. Do not assume that future Dalai Lamas will unite Tibetan politics and religion within one individual as he has. And do not assume that the future Dalai Lama will also be a global superstar. By way of comparison, the international spokesperson of China's Uighur Turk minority, Rebiya Kadeer, who speaks little English, has a very low international profile and has yet to unite the Uighur diaspora. The future Dalai Lama could end up in her category. The fact is that the Dalai Lama has so concentrated the Tibetan cause within his own person that he is one of those rare individuals who has become a geopolitical entity in his own right. Another such individual was Pope John Paul II, whose Polish background made him inseparable from the cause of an independent Poland (and Eastern Europe) liberated from Soviet domination.

In short, the Dalai Lama, while helping the cause of a free (or truly autonomous) Tibet by his global brand name, has perhaps hurt the Tibetan cause by arresting the development of a more mature and less centralized ethnic movement. By his very fame, the Dalai Lama makes the job of his successor more difficult. He has recognized this and has made moves to split the political and spiritual leadership roles as a way to strengthen and legitimize a more elective and representative political leadership. But so long as the Dalai Lama remains around, he will continue to be the dominant force in the cause, particularly in the eyes of the international community.

As the Dalai Lama ages, the question becomes: Who will influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama, the Chinese or the Indians? A future Dalai Lama born and raised inside India, near Dharamsala in Greater Tibet, could well reflect the intense militancy of Indian-born Tibetans: which the current Dalai Lama, for all his poignancy in representing his people, does not. That is another unique aspect to this Dalai Lama: he has life experience in both Tibet and India. His successor probably won't.

China is preparing for such an eventuality. China wants a Dalai Lama who is politically hostage to Beijing. Thus, it has in waiting a panchen lama — the highest reincarnated lama after the Dalai Lama himself — ready to be installed. Here, again, is where spiritual matters mesh with geopolitics. It is not merely a battle between China and India over the identity of the next Dalai Lama. Indeed, China wants to split the Tibetan movement between its spiritual and political aspects and to split up the Tibetan political movement itself, even as it is prepared to offer incentives for Tibetans to pursue a peaceful path toward Beijing. China is determined that there never again be a Dalai Lama with the stature of the present one. But, as Beijing well knows, there are risks in that, too.

In fact, the Dalai Lama, with all his political acumen, has been a stabilizing force within Tibetan émigré politics, suppressing the more extremist elements. As he passes from the scene, India-based militants are likely to rear their heads and influence events within Tibet. China will then pressure India to avoid supporting cross-border militancy. China has much at stake. The Tibetan minority area inside China is now actually larger than it appears on the map, because the ethnic cartography of Tibet is larger than China's imposition of internal borders suggests.

For example, of the more than 30 self-immolations of ethnic-Tibetans protesting Han Chinese rule between March 2011 and April 2012, almost all occurred outside the Tibet Autonomous Region itself in adjacent Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, slightly beyond the Tibetan plateau. On the other hand, immolations have less of a shock value in the world media than they used to back in the early 1960s when monks in Saigon immolated themselves to protest the South Vietnamese government. The many car bombs and other grisly acts of violence in Iraq and elsewhere over the decades have weakened the power of this latest technique of Tibetan protest.

But do not expect the Tibetan movement to be neutralized, even with less international support owing in the future to a weaker and less-charismatic Dalai Lama. The power of social media in all its forms — friendly as it is to anti-authoritarian struggles — coupled with a more fractious political atmosphere in Beijing itself, promises that Tibet will remain on-and-off in the headlines for years. And a restive Tibet, given its centrality to the Chinese landmass, will add to Beijing's woes as it attempts to orchestrate a transition away from its present economic model.

For Beijing and New Delhi to organize a solution is problematic. For domestic political reasons, New Delhi cannot threaten to evict Tibetan refugees, while Beijing has little to offer Tibetans beyond what it has already given them: the chance to live under Han Chinese rule. Tibet, a vast plateau with immense stores of water resources located between China and India, is ultimately not a spiritual question but a zero-sum, geopolitical one.

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